Leveling Up and Learning: Video-Game Design with Lydia Symchych ’14

By Claire Jeantheau

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan observed, “you must first invent the universe.’” That sounds like a job for video-game designer Lydia Symchych ’14. To make anything in Lydia’s current project, Tablecraft, players start at life’s very beginnings, gathering atomic elements and engineering reactions until they’ve produced items like plants, shells, and lightbulbs. 

Lydia, along with her teammates at virtual reality (VR) gaming studio Not Suspicious, is building every detail of Tablecraft’s immersive universe—and using it to show how scientific principles work within our own world. “We’re trying to teach STEM concepts in a way that is really, really fun, in the vein of a cooking game,” she says. And as a longtime gamer herself with experience in teaching and exhibit design, Lydia is up for the challenge. 

Suspiciously Fun Worlds 

The plot of Tablecraft begins not with chemistry but a court summons: You are a mad scientist given a community service requirement after your latest schemes disturb public order; rubber chickens and gravitational anomalies are both involved. (Moreover, perhaps you are a kindred spirit of Commonwealth’s Evil Genius Club, aka student purveyors of puzzle hunts.) To fulfill your community service requirement, you must venture to laboratories on various planets and provide “craftable” objects to their dwellers. The catch: different resources are available on each planet, and you’ll need to puzzle out how to transform them into what your clients need on specialized machines. That could mean converting “element cubes” (Tablecraft building blocks) to organic molecules or forming rocks and other minerals. If you can grapple with each laboratory’s anomalies, satisfy the locals, and beat the clock, you’ll unlock new levels—and earn back the machine-operation licenses that were revoked under your sentencing.

Lydia works to map out how players will move through Tablecraft’s levels, developing not only the story arc but the core game mechanics, the taxonomy and classification systems for different objects (like element cubes and craftables), and models for her ideas. She counts the zany hijinks from the television shows of her childhood, like Wallace and Gromit and Jimmy Neutron, among her narrative inspirations—“slapstick but not dangerous.” And real-life researchers are taking note: the team has netted multiple grants for their work from the National Science Foundation. 

Lydia and her fellow tinkerers at Not Suspicious take after their game’s protagonist, too; the company website’s tongue-in-cheek newsfeed describes the team as “infiltrators” who secure their funding through “heists,” pitching titles under the slogan “Learning in Disguise.” It’s a neat analogue for the educational-gaming niche (also sometimes referred to as “positive-impact gaming”), which can fly beneath the radar of mass-consumed culture. Blockbusters like Call of Duty or The Sims produced by the industry’s major “triple-A” studios still dominate popular perceptions of what games are and can do. 

However, with plans to market Tablecraft to any interested player—not just students within middle and high schools—Not Suspicious aims not only to infiltrate but to innovate. “We want it to be able to be used in schools, but it is definitely meant more to be a field trip—something that does relate to what they’ve been working on but is a break,” Lydia says. “Anyone who really likes science and wants a chance to learn something new: that’s really where our target audience is.” Aspiring Tablecraft scientists don’t even need to wait for the game’s full release: a server organized by the studio on the messaging website Discord is full of playtesters, experimenting together on prototype levels.

Teaching Beyond the Classroom 

The primary focus of Tablecraft is chemistry, but as the game’s universe expands, Lydia and her teammates are incorporating material from multiple subjects to give players more exposure to interconnected topics under the STEM umbrella. Take one update Lydia is excited to add to a future Tablecraft iteration: the ability to throw rocks of varying masses. “That’s a gentle nod to density, which is something that you cover very early on in chemistry; you also cover it earlier in math in algebra,” Lydia explains. “It interacts with basic Newtonian physics—things that are heavier will travel farther and longer.” The approach may sound familiar to anyone who’s experienced Commonwealth’s curriculum, where the sequencing of science courses aligns with when concepts are presented in math. 

In her time at Commonwealth, Lydia didn’t self-categorize as a STEM nerd: “I think of myself as a jack-of-all-trades.” That included dance, creative writing, biology, history, and, among her ample gaming experience, playing Minecraft, which may have indirectly contributed to her sharp attention to Tablecraft’s scientific accuracy. (“I was genuinely sad to learn that obsidian in real life is not that hard, because in Minecraft, you need diamonds to break obsidian,” she recalls.) She explored gaming not only through play but production; her senior project with Phoenix Online Studios culminated in a design-intern credit on the twentieth-anniversary remake of adventure title Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father.  

“I had the space at Commonwealth to do a lot of different things and not have to be the best at all of them,” Lydia reflects. “It wasn’t like other high schools where it’s like, ‘This is a math and science school first. This is a classics school. This is a sports school.’ Commonwealth had enough of a broad, liberal-arts palette that I could go and explore and get decent experience with any subject, which was important for me because I didn’t know what I was going to be or do or what I was good at.”

Lydia kept following the liberal arts to Carleton College in Minnesota, where a stint as a student dance instructor brought her professional interests into focus during senior year: “I like to teach people. I like to learn new things. I like to work with people of all ages.” She wasn’t keen on working in an art museum or traditional classroom, but she found two internships that fit the bill, first with the Rice County Historical Society, then at the Montshire Museum of Science, where she focused specifically on exhibition design. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic hit, disrupting cultural institutions, and she needed a new plan. “I was still interested in video games very much,” Lydia says, so when a positive-impact game company was seeking a designer, she gave it her best shot: “I thought, ‘I need to make a portfolio anyway and brush up my résumé. I might as well apply. I’m not gonna get it because I have no experience.’ And then I got the job somehow.”

While this entry into game production may have felt like chance in the moment, it now it feels like a “natural extension” of her museum work, Lydia says. Learning to incorporate feedback from scholars and educators into a cohesive exhibit design prepared her to do the same with the knowledge, like chemistry in Tablecraft, underpinning her virtual worlds. “I did really like to work with people who were experts in their fields and hear about it and think, ‘Oh man, that’s so cool,’ and then figure out how I could integrate as much of that as possible into an exhibit either explicitly or subtly,” she says.

An expanding interest in narrative storytelling at museums meshes with Lydia’s current role at Not Suspicious, too. “Within the last couple of decades, museum exhibits have shifted from a more collections-based mentality to an interpretation-based one,” she notes. “You can see that shift, I think, particularly in older university museums, which have gone from walls and walls of dead stuff in jars and collections…to curation with labels that establish the pattern, the story, the argument they’re trying to tell.” With more exhibitions inviting visitors to engage in those stories by virtual means, like scannable QR codes and augmented reality information pop-ups, a game like Tablecraft may not be out of place at a future museum either. 

A New Era for Educational Gaming

Like museums, digital games have evolved, too. Lydia came of age during what she hails as the “golden age of educational video games” in the 1990s, when a boom in personal computers opened new doors for studios. Kids solved puzzles for the charming blue titular creatures of the Zoombinis games or traveled to locales like Mystery Mountain and Haunted Island in the JumpStart franchise—all the while picking up basics of math, science, and reading.

In high school, Lydia’s interest grew through “Let’s Plays,” vlogs where a gamer films their play for viewers, with running commentary and jokes that recall the on-the-fly insights of a DJ or sports broadcaster. “I was exposed to so many types of games, which then built up my design vocabulary,” she says. By watching another person take the controls, she “could notice a lot more of the details and the ways that they were doing things.” The Let’s Players that Lydia followed helped usher in today’s savvy streamers, who can broadcast their gameplay live to an audience and get instantaneous reactions through online platforms like Twitch. 

Now, educational game developers are on the cusp of another transformation with the rise of VR, but Lydia cautions those who would view the technology as a quick-fix solution for educational needs—or sloppy storytelling. “You can’t just throw something onto an iPad and have it be great. You have to have an intentionality with what you’re going to put onto a VR headset, onto an iPad, onto the computer as a game and as technology for teaching something, whether it’s for kids or older adults,” she urges. “If it tries to do everything, it will do nothing.” 

When working on Tablecraft, Lydia takes a deliberate approach, considering what players will gain and learn by adding different sensory details. Designing requires making tough calls about which game objects to keep basic and which would benefit from multiple custom options. “Do you make plain feathers or do you make down feathers versus flight feathers versus another feather? Is it important enough of a difference to have so many types of fish scales?” The tradeoffs of time or money are too high to create some items, but for others, it’s those realistic details that help players absorb information. With regard to future rock-throwing, Tablecraft doesn’t explicitly say that changes in mass affect motion, Lydia says; rather, by hurling different materials within the game, “you will have intuitively learned something in the same way that a baby does.” (Plus, “throwing things is fun in VR.”)

The goal is for players, particularly young students, to learn by fully engaging with Tablecraft’s fantastical planets; that way, concepts will be vivid in their memory whenever they next encounter advanced STEM material. “Maybe a middle schooler plays the game,” Lydia says, “and they’re putting element cubes into a template to make cellulose. Years later, if they’re looking at the skeletal structure of a molecule of cellulose, they’ll think, ‘Wait a second. That looks familiar.’” Suddenly, absorbing what could’ve been strange abstractions feels as easy as, well, pie. 

Claire Jeantheau served as Commonwealth’s Communications Coordinator before becoming the Marketing Manager for the American Exchange Project. This article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of CM, Commonwealth's alumni/ae magazine.

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